Just after Rahul Dravid had been given out lbw in the second innings at Lord's by Simon Taufel, a colleague wondered if he should be recalled. The television replays showed that the impact had been fractionally outside the off stump, and since Dravid looked like he was playing a stroke, he shouldn't have been given out.
My colleague's argument was based on a similar situation in England's first innings. It has now been famously recorded that Kevin Pietersen was given out caught behind by Taufel and was then stopped from leaving the field by his team-mates who had seen on the video replay that the edge hadn't carried. The on-field umpires then consulted their colleagues in the box who ruled Pietersen not out.
Actually, the situations weren't similar. The Pietersen decision was about a catch taken on the bounce. Dravid's was a leg-before decision. And there is a fundamental difference there.
Umpires are granted sovereignty over leg-before decisions and that's the way it should be, not merely because one of cricket's romantic ideals rests on it but because of the predictive nature of the business. If mistakes are to be made - and there is room for errors with Hawk-Eye, which relies on humans to operate cameras and make projections - it is far more palatable to have these made by umpires than a supposedly infallible machine. Hawk-Eye is a magnificent tool for television, and that's all it should be when it comes to cricket.
But has Hawk-Eye had a positive influence on the way umpires make decisions? We'll come to this later.
Dravid was unfortunate to be given out, but only marginally so. Cricket follows the criminal-justice system, which grants the benefit of the doubt to the batsman, but personally I don't really mind the odd batsman given out this way. Dravid was beaten, and though the impact was just outside the line, the ball was going on to hit the stumps. It would have been another matter if the ball was going down leg, but in this case there was some reward for the bowler who had bowled a ball good enough to beat the batsman. Batsmen get away with a lot these days; many have mastered to subtle art of dragging the front foot outside the off stump and pretending to play a stroke.
It was ironic that a Test that featured 14 lbws, the most in a Test in England, and the fourth highest in history - the record is 17, in the game between West Indies and Pakistan at Port-of-Spain in April 1993 - was ultimately decided by one that was not given. Steve Bucknor has been vilified by Indian fans ever since he adjudged Sachin Tendulkar lbw at Brisbane in 2003, when the ball was palpably sailing over the stumps. By the same standards, he should now be a national hero in India for having spared Sreesanth, the last man, in what turned out be the dying moments of the Test after Monty Panesar had trapped him in front. It looked out, both to the naked eye and on television replays.
Nonetheless it was significant that so many were given, and even though the spinners didn't get that many, the one that Anil Kumble did get points to a happy story. Paul Collingwood went full stretch forward, but Kumble beat him on length and the ball speared into the pad. There was not much doubt about where the ball was headed, yet few umpires would have favoured the bowler a few years ago. But Taufel is a modern umpire who doesn't mind giving the batsman out on the front foot, and with that dismissal Kumble became the bowler with the highest number of lbws, beating the record of another spinner - who else but Shane Warne.
No other spinner in recent history has had a wider range of deliveries designed to trap batsmen leg-before than Kumble, but to Warne must go the credit of convincing umpires that it isn't a sacrilege to award front-foot lbws. His stature helped, but Warne also perfected the art of appealing; combining the force of his personality with impeccable timing he half-coaxed and half-intimidated umpires into choosing in his favour. His flipper acquired an aura of its own, and few batsmen had a chance after he had suckered them.
Of course, umpires in the subcontinent were far more liberal with the front-foot lbw to begin with. For one, they were exposed to a lot more spin bowling, and also, on low-bouncing wickets in their parts, once the path of the ball had been judged, it was easier to hand out decisions in favour of the bowlers.
This wasn't always the case with umpires who had less experience of spin bowling. It was as late as last year that Brian Jerling, a South African umpire standing only in his second Test series, drove Kumble and his team-mates batty by negating appeal after straightforward appeal. Indian won that series in the West Indies 1-0, but Greg Chappell, then India's coach, reckoned that the margin would have been larger had Kumble not been denied.
Monty Panesar had a happier experience against the same opponents this summer because he had umpires far more responsive to his supplication.
If mistakes are to be made - and there is room for errors with HawkEye, which relies on humans to operate cameras and make projections - it is far more palatable to have these made by umpires than a supposedly infallible machine. HawkEye is a magnificent tool for television, and that's all it should be when it comes to cricket
In all fairness it must be said that it was a South African umpire who was one of the early radicals when it came to lbws. Dave Orchard got some stick for his howlers, but he was a bowlers' umpire who was brave enough to rule by his instincts than play it safe. He took it too far at times, perhaps, and he once ruled Sourav Ganguly lbw after he had had jumped down a few paces against Muttiah Muralitharan. Ganguly had made no attempt to play a stroke and in Orchard's eye he had deliberately used his pads to intercept the path of the ball as it headed for the stumps. Ganguly was mortified and the decision got Orchard plenty of flak, but it was a brave one, and it was a warning to batsmen prone to using their pads as the first line of defence.
Believe it or not, Hawk-Eye could be another factor. A leading umpire, whose name I cannot reveal because the conversation was private, once told me that he was emboldened to give front-foot lbws after he was exposed to Hawk-Eye projections. "It got everybody, spectators, players and umpires used to the idea," he said. "Earlier I would have played safe, but it was far more okay to give a batsman not out on the front foot than to give him out. But now I'm confident of going with my first impression because I know the graphic will support my decision."
Numbers support the hypothesis that umpires have been more inclined towards handing out lbws in recent years, and that they have been favourably disposed towards giving lbws in favour of spinners. In the seven years since 2000, spinners have won 597 lbw dismissals out of a total of 11,113 dismissals of all types, which is 5.37 per cent. In all, lbws have accounted for 17.1 per cent of dismissals. The corresponding figure is 3.68 per cent (400 out of 10,564) in the 1990s, 2.77 per cent (215 out of 7734) in the 1980s, and 2.87 per cent (226 out of 5578) in the 1970s.
Not a lot has favoured the bowlers, spinners in particular, in the recent past. Bats have got heavier and more powerful, boundaries have got shorter, and rules have been amended to suit batsmen. It's good to know umpires have done their bit to redress the balance somewhat.
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